Paul Revere Williams was the first black member of the American Institute of Architects and a builder to the stars, designing mansions for the likes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant. He also, in 1952, built a home for his own family: a striking composition of off-white boxes, shady terraces, and grand-piano curves in Los Angeles’s Lafayette Square. Today, the house is dark and gutted, awaiting restoration. Its new owner, art dealer Hannah Hoffman, recently turned it into a temporary exhibition space for a show of five video works by Tony Cokes. The context brought a particular charge to one of Cokes’s ongoing themes: how African Americans can survive, even succeed, on something like their own terms.
The two 2019 videos that debuted here—both of them made with the space in mind—depart from Cokes’s usual austere style of text-based video, in which sans-serif quotations of figures ranging from Guy Debord to Kanye West appear against monochrome grounds, often to pop music soundtracks. Titled The Will & the Way and The Queen Is Dead and focusing on Williams and Aretha Franklin, respectively, the new works superimpose text on backgrounds that pullulate with abstract digital imagery resembling electrified carpets or jackfruits submerged in oil.
The Will & the Way sets statements from Williams’s diaries to a soundtrack composed of dance remixes of Radiohead songs. In the text on-screen, the architect muses on episodes from his life, such as taking the “Jim Crow car” to see white Southern clients, and sketching designs for them from across a table—upside down—so that they wouldn’t have to stand too close to him. Visitors to the show saw signs all around them of Williams’s achievements in spite of prejudice—in the house itself and in Cokes’s tribute to the architect. The Queen Is Dead features recollections of Franklin and her music against a soundtrack of her hits, underscoring how forcefully she, too, made her own place in American culture. Each of the videos was divided into two parts. In the living room, part one of The Will & the Way played on a huge LED screen, while part two of The Queen Is Dead was screened on video monitor with headphones. The videos’ other parts were found on the home’s sunporch, where the A/V setup was reversed: the Williams work played on a monitor with headphones, while the Franklin one was shown on a big screen. The soundtracks bled together between the rooms, with Aretha’s high notes and snare hits piercing and jiving with the basslines of the Radiohead tracks, just as Williams’s modernist schema merged outdoors and indoors. The various interjections, overlaps, and counterpoints the exhibition put forth helped convey issues of race and class as structural problems.
The dining room hosted three older videos. The earliest, Fade to Black (1990), charts a history of racist depictions of African Americans in Hollywood, combining names and dates of films like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) and For Massa’s Sake (1911); classic movie sequences like Elvis jailhouse rocking in prison stripes; and a soundtrack consisting of clips including music by Public Enemy and the Pet Shop Boys and a voice-over in which two black men describe casual racism. The other two videos were from Cokes’s series “Evil” (2003–), in which pop songs play as texts alluding to the title subject appear on-screen. When Morrissey sings in Evil.27.Selma (2011) that “if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together,” he may as well be singing about civil rights. Evil 35: Carlin/Owners (2012) quotes comedian George Carlin’s famous tirade against the educational industrial complex. “They own you!” Carlin said, with humor as acrid as Cokes’s, seeming to indict the United States’ particular racist brand of ownership and control. These videos likewise work to undermine the authority of the pop culture they dissect. They use that authority, too, appropriating sounds, images, and words to produce their own commanding messages.